With around half of the world’s production, China is by far the most influential country in the global steel industry. In recent years, a slow-down in demand in the country has led to an explosion in exports as Chinese producers sought new markets rather than cut production which subsequently had a profound effect on world prices. In the past few months, however, there is evidence that this trend has reversed.
At the start of 2016, in response to the lower domestic demand, Chinese production was predicted to decline in the year as a whole. In the first two months of the year, this trend was apparent with a fall of nearly 6% year on year. In March, however, this trend reversed and Chinese production started showing a year on year rise each month which accelerated from August through to November. The upshot of this is that by the end of the year, Chinese production actually posted a 1% rise in the year as a whole.
In the past, the consequence of this rise in production would have been a subsequent growth in exports but this has not been evident in 2016. In the first half of the year, Chinese exports of total steel did indeed continue on their growth trajectory with a rise of more than 9%. In the second half of the year, however, just when production growth started to accelerate, Chinese exports actually declined with Q3 showing a 9% reversal and Q4 posting an astonishing decline of nearly 20% year on year with the lowest quarterly total since Q2 2014.
This phenomenon has helped propel global prices for nearly all steel products and raw materials to highs not seen since 2014 and would suggest a big hike in Chinese demand for steel but is this the full story? It seems as though this has not led to a build in stock as Chinese steel inventories as a proportion of production were at a historic low of 8.2 percent in November. It appears that this increase in apparent demand reflected in consumption, prompted by an unexpected round of credit stimulus in 2016 as the government pushed money into infrastructure to maintain GDP growth at around 6.5%.
China’s chief government forecaster has said that a predicted decline in steel demand would not happen in 2017 as a decrease in steel use by the property sector this year would be offset by strong railway, port and highway construction. He said that China’s crude steel production would rise by about 0.3 per cent with a further reduction in exports.
It seems then, with real Chinese domestic demand improving and exports declining, partially as a result of anti-dumping legislation being enacted across the world, that the near term prognosis for the global steel industry is better than it has been for some time. At 23.9MT in Q4, Chinese exports are still highly elevated, by historic levels, at a level above the total annual figure for Italy, however, so any small percentage change to the demand outlook in the country would have a profound effect on the industry as a whole.